Cooking Italy is back in session after a brief Summer break! One of our August recipes is Panzanella…and I’ve wanted to make this for such a long time, so I jumped on it first!!
I should tell you some of the wonderful things about cooking with the group at Cooking Italy. For one thing, our leader, Angela, is very gentle and easy-going. She doesn’t push us to cook something our families would reject…if they’d try it, fabulous! If they’d reject it out of hand, then, don’t waste the money or the food. It’s ok. Substitute another recipe, or select one of the other choices for the month. She only asks 2 recipes a month of 4 from us. The other thing is everyone shares so openly about their experiences, likes and dislikes and everyone tries to help each other, making suggestions and sourcing items for each other. I just love this group. Our abilities, preferences, and experiences are all over the map just like we are! We are an international group!! I told you about that, so the rest of my story makes better sense!
As I said, I’ve waited a long time to learn to make Panzanella…I was so excited! Then, Group Leader Angela reports in that she made the recipe, but she didn’t like it. She thought maybe it was the onion she didn’t care for. Ok. That could be understandable. But it made me start wondering.
I read the recipe carefully…hmmm….onions sliced very thinly, soaked, rinsed and soaked, with the water changed every 10 minutes… Interesting. I decide I’ll be judicious, and not just ADD the onions… I’ll see how they end up tasting first, and go from there… Thanks for the warning!! Then I notice there is only just a wee bit of basil in this recipe, but not much. I’m disappointed. To me, fresh ripe tomatoes just beg for fresh basil to dance with. So, I end up doing what I tend to do… I start sourcing recipes for comparison. Marcella, Giada, Mario, Lidia, Food Network, Alton Brown, Emeril, Epicurious…what’s in common? What differs? What are the proportions? What do I have? What don’t I have!?
I came to the conclusion that, as with many Italian recipes, the region of preparation has a lot to do with what is used. Tuscany used the onions. The Genoa area used more basil. Closer to Greece Kalamata olives made an appearance. Feta or mozzarella jumped in to play in some versions. Peppers came into play in a lot of versions, including Marcella’s …I just didn’t happen to have one at the moment. Some recipes used fresh sweet peppers, others used roasted sweet peppers. In the end…this is my recipe from the recipes I read…and it’s a work in progress. I’ll try adding this, and that as I have the other ingredients available.
2 large tomatoes, peeled, cubed
1/2 inch red onion sliced thinly, soaked, and chopped
1/2 French batard – I used Tin Roof Sourdough, sliced 1″ thick, grilled
1/2 cup chopped, peeled cucumber
1/4 cup basil chiffonade, extra for garnish
1/2 Tbsp. capers
1-1/2 anchovy fillets
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp. High Quality Ex. Virg. Olive Oil
2-3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Additional basil for garnish
Peel and chop the tomatoes, reserving the juice. Slice the onion into half rings; rinse and soak for half an hour, or until ready to assemble salad, changing water at 10 minute intervals. Chop to make 1/4 cup or to your taste. Slice bread into 1 inch thick slices and grill. Remove crusts and cut or tear into 1 inch chunks. With a mortar and pestle, mash capers, anchovies and garlic adding drops of olive oil until a smooth consistency is reached. Continue to work in the remainder of the tablespoon of the olive oil. Use a small whisk that will fit inside the mortar, whisk the vinegar into the oil forming an amalgamation.
Combine all ingredients and add anchovy mixture, mix all ingredients well, check seasonings and allow flavors to blend for 15-30 minutes.
One thing I noticed as I compared recipes was that there were a lot of the same ingredients in the “dressing” of this salad as there were in one of our previous recipes…Piquant Green Sauce. I looked it up to compare, and sure enough. There were a LOT of similarities. Frankly, if I were in a hurry…mixing a bit of Piquant Green Sauce into red wine vinegar and olive oil to toss with the bread and veggies would work for me. Just as an aside… *wink*
Let’s talk about the “onion” issue… I didn’t like them either. I don’t know if that means I’ll never like them, or I’ll never like the red onions, or I just don’t like the onions soaked, or just what. I know that I went about it prepared to go with the recipe, but also prepared to adapt. I sliced the onions very thinly into quarter rings, thinking that whole rings might be too much onion in a single bite. Reducing the forced amount of onion in a bite might help. You’d still get the flavor of the onion, the crunch, but not necessarily so much of it at one time. Sorry about the aesthetic effect…if it’s not going to taste good, no effect is worth it. After soaking the onion in several chances of water, I didn’t like the aroma, and I didn’t care for the taste. I think I’d have preferred it as it was before the water treatment. Oh well… My brave and helpful sous chef hubby was in the kitchen with me tasting and smelling with me, and we both agreed…the particular red onion we had didn’t necessarily benefit from this treatment…and onion needed to be kept at a minimum. An essence of onion, not a fanfare of onion! We can only get Maui onions a few weeks out of the year…sadly it doesn’t coincide with tomato season. I’ll try to nurse on through to tomato time next year!
When I grilled my bread, I put a grill pan on medium high heat, and didn’t put any oil or anything on the bread. I just put it on the pan. I grilled it to the smoking point and got a lovely char on my bread! It added great flavor, but didn’t affect the ability of the bread to soak up the juices of the tomatoes.
About the dressing… I used a mortar and pestle…don’t hesitate to use your food processor, blender stick, blender or whatever else suits you as long as it will give you and emulsified dressing to mix into the salad. I like to be in control of some things like that. I’m strange that way. No big deal. *Ü*
I served the salad on individual salad plates garnished with a fresh chiffonade of basil, a grinding of fresh black pepper and a drizzle of high quality extra virgin olive oil. Oh yum. The perfect salad for a summer’s eve!
This was as good as I’d hoped it would be! It was similar to the flavor of Salad Caprese…tomatoes, bread, basil, olive oil…just no prosciutto. This salad celebrates tomatoes! The dressing of anchovies, capers and garlic are absolutely perfect to tease out the flavors of Summer from all the vegetables in the salad. The bread is soft, but not mushy. It soaks up all the wonderful flavors and becomes a little sponge bursting with all the flavors simultaneously! We paired this with a grilled flat iron steak and sauteed mushrooms….and it made a great dinner. We really enjoyed it as it was, but think we could probably increase the dressing ingredients…anchovies, capers, maybe garlic, maybe not…but vinegar and olive oil as well. Not more basil necessarily. The basil seemed about right. Please…don’t be squeamish about the anchovies. They’re just little fillets, packed in olive oil, and they’re kind of a salt substitute. There’s just something magical in those little bodies that enhance flavors in an incredible way. You’ll only see them when you take them from the jar. After that they’ll disappear into the dressing. I mashed everything up in a mortar with my pestle and a few drops of really good olive oil, until everything was pretty much amalgamated. That way I knew I wasn’t going to find any pieces of anything coming back to find me. You see…I don’t care a whole lot for “fishy” things either… So If I’m advocating using the anchovies there’s a really good reason for it! LOL!